Image of the Noble Savage in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Image of the Noble Savage in Literature


Image of the Noble Savage in Literature

An idealized concept of native cultures as being uncorrupted by the influences of civilization.

The idea of the Noble Savage, according to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, resulted from “the fusion of three elements: the observation of explorers; various classical and medieval conventions; the deductions of philosophers and men of letters.” While scholars debate as to whether Jean-Jacques Rousseau was truly the creator of the literary tradition of the Noble Savage, the concept dates all the way back to the classical period. The overriding literary image of the Noble Savage throughout history is one of a figure who is uncorrupted by civilization and possesses a kind of innocence that has been lost by civilized cultures.

From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the concept of the Noble Savage became a popular element in literature. Columbus wrote of a people who were generous, gentle, had physical beauty, and had minds open to being trained. Voyagers and travel writers for over two centuries proclaimed the “natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas.” Many of these travel writers commented on the natural virtues possessed by these Noble Savages, and based on what they observed, raised doubts as to the value of civilization. Many scholars credit Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the primary figure in the history of the Noble Savage concept. According to Rousseau, “the noble savage is an individual living in a ‘pure state of nature’—gentle, wise, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization.” Although the idea of the Noble Savage existed long before Rousseau, he is generally credited with formalizing the concept.

Commentary on the idea of the Noble Savage in literature has covered a wide range of topics and perspectives. As to the origin of the concept, Ter Ellingson claims that there are still unanswered questions, and concluded, “that Rousseau's invention of the Noble Savage myth is itself a myth.” Stelio Cro argues that Rosseau loved the idea of the Noble Savage because he saw him as a figure of freedom: “physical freedom as opposed to slavery and tyranny, moral freedom as opposed to religious discrimination or superstition.” According to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, the Noble Savage is really a creation of philosophers who read into explorers' narratives a concept that would support their disillusionment with civilized society. In examining travel writers, Lewis Saum argues that fur-trade literature shows a concern on the part of the fur traders that the Noble Savage was being corrupted by the encroaching civilization. Terry Jay Ellingson disagrees, claiming that many travel writings depict natives in a very negative light and that these works should be “taken into account if only for the sake of balance, to counteract the tendency built up over a century and a half of unquestioning acceptance of the myth of the Noble Savage.” Roy Pearce argues that the Noble Savage was a literary invention used for the purpose of creating a history and a culture in America, but one “in which the idea of savagism … compromised the idea of the noble savage and then absorbed and reconstituted it.” Hence, he argues, in the ideology and belief reflected in the literature of the time, natives transformed and became what Americans needed as the country grew. Ironically, the depiction in literature of the Amerindians as Noble Savages was indeed a myth, according to critic Olive Patricia Dickason, who claims that they were “far from being uninformed savages in the ‘infancy of nature,’ [but] were the products of cultures that had evolved over many centuries.”

Representative Works

Denis Diderot
Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville (dialogue) 1772

Michel de Montaigne
Of the Cannibals (essay) 1578-80

Jean Jacques Rousseau
Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (essay) 1750 [A Discourse on Inequality]
Second Discourse on Inequality (essay) 1755
The Social Contract (essay) 1762

L'Ingénue (prose) 1767

Criticism: Overviews And Development

Hayden White (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: White, Hayden. “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea.” In The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, edited by Edward Dudley and Maximillian E. Novak, pp. 3-38. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, White examines the history of the Wild Man image throughout history, concluding that the image of the Wild Man as viewed in literature is a criticism of the security and peace-of-mind brought by civilization.]

The subject of these essays is the Wild Man during his age of triumph, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he was viewed as “the Noble Savage” and...

(The entire section is 16246 words.)

Hayden White (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: White, Hayden. “The Noble Savage: Theme as Fetish.” In First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, edited by Fredi Chiappelli, pp. 121-35. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, White discusses the history of the Noble Savage theme, proposing that the concept contains attributes of a fetish in the sense that form is believed to reflect content. White maintains that Europeans not only fetishized native peoples, but fetishized their own culture.]

The theme of the Noble Savage may be one of the few historical topics about which there is nothing more to say. Few of the topoi of eighteenth-century...

(The entire section is 7193 words.)

Gorman Beauchamp (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Beauchamp, Gorman. “Montaigne, Melville, and the Cannibals”. Arizona Quarterly 37, no. 4 (winter 1981): 293-309.

[In the following essay, Beauchamp examines the use and development of the Noble Savage as a literary device, highlighting the use of the Noble Savage in the writings of Montaigne and Melville.]

From his inception, the Noble Savage has served as a weapon in ideological warfare, a convenient stick figure with which to beat civilized man over his corrupt head. As early as the first Christian century, Tacitus was belaboring his fellow Romans with the image of the simple, brave, virtuous Germani living like noble Stoics all in the wilds beyond the...

(The entire section is 6770 words.)

Ter Ellingson (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Ellingson, Ter. “The Noble Savage Myth and Travel-Ethnographic Literature.” In The Myth of the Noble Savage, pp. 45-63. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Ellingson surveys travel writings throughout history, maintaining that the idea of the Noble Savage was not widely held by the writers of these works or by the general population.]

In the interval between Lescarbot's invention of the Noble Savage concept at the beginning of the seventeenth century and its reemergence as a full-blown myth in the 1850s, the Noble Savage appears to have receded into a state of virtual nonexistence. Although no one could say with...

(The entire section is 8323 words.)